No Federal Bailout for Life Insurance in the Cards
WASHINGTON (AP) _ After being stung for at least $160 billion in the bailout of savings and loan depositors, Congress is in no hurry to extend federal protection to Americans whose life insurance benefits are threatened.
But the financial troubles of several large insurance companies in recent months have increased pressure on Congress to step up federal oversight of the industry, now regulated almost entirely by the states.
″I don’t think anyone is talking about pushing the states out of this,″ says Rep. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the No. 2 Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, which has been investigating insurance problems for three years. ″The federal government ought to augment state regulation of the industry because some states do it better than others.″
What is needed most, Wyden said, is a uniform standard for determining the financial health of an insurance company, so that prospective policyholders will have some idea of the risk they face before handing over their money.
But that is a long way from having the federal government guarantee insurance benefits just as it insures S&L and bank deposits. Taxpayers are having to reimburse S&L depositors because so many institutions failed that the federal guarantee fund was depleted.
″I don’t see how, given our budget situation, that the federal government could get into guaranteeing insurance policies, even if one found it acceptable philosophically,″ Wyden said in a recent interview.
That’s just fine with life insurers and the state officials who regulate them. They see no need for a major federal role in policing the industry. The National Conference of State Legislatures recently went on record favoring tighter state regulation and opposing ″any attempt at federal pre-emption.″
Life and health insurers have been failing at the rate of 19 a year for the last seven years, four times the average of the previous decade. Forty-three failed in 1989.
The industry has been under greater scrutiny, and policyholders have been expressing more concern, since two big insurers - Executive Life Insurance Co. of California and Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. of New Jersey - were seized by regulators this year.
Executive Life was done in by an investment portfolio heavily laden with high-risk ″junk″ bonds. Mutual Benefit was troubled by real estate investments gone bad.
Under state control, Mutual is continuing to pay most benefits to policyholders. The state guarantee funds, financed by healthy insurers, are developing plans to pay off Executive Life policyholders, although some who put their money into ″guaranteed″ investment contracts are assured nothing.
Guarantees vary by state. New York, for example, guarantees up to $500,000, including cash surrender value, per person; in most states, the maximum is $300,000. Although those guarantees leave many policyholders with less than full protection, they more than cover the average new policy sold these days: about $69,000.
There are even more variations in how the states define and value a company’s assets and in minimum capital and reserve requirements. In Colorado, a life insurance company must have a reserve of at least $200,000; Connecticut requires $2 million.
Nevertheless, said North Carolina Commissioner Jim Long, who is president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners:
″When you get rid of all the accounting terms and legalese, the question (of financial solvency) is whether an insurance company has the ability to pay claims. We all use that standard.″
The association sets voluntary standards for states to apply to insurers. It has no authority, however, to enforce the standards or to require a state to act against a company.
Congress’ General Accounting Office finds three major weaknesses in the state system:
-Sharp variations in the quality of regulation.
-A lack of coordination among the states in policing large interstate insurers.
-The inability of states to oversee holding companies and foreign insurers.
″The main road to effective regulation of the insurance industry does not pass through″ the National Association, the GAO concluded after the failure of Executive Life.
Some members of Congress seem to agree, while conceding there is little likelihood of all-out federal regulation. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., whose Senate Commerce consumer subcommittee is investigating, said the Executive Life case ″clearly raises doubts that existing state regulation offers the needed protection to policyholders and taxpayers.″
″Only a national system of insurance regulation can possibly hope to protect the public,″ added Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, who chairs the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. He has introduced a bill to create a federal commission to set standards for determining and regulating the financial stability of insurers.
The industry, as represented by the American Council of Life Insurance, wants no part of federal regulation but concedes the present system is not perfect.